To know the physiographic makeup of the Southeast Missouri Lowland and how it developed is hardly necessary to appreciate what the Little River Drainage District did.  However, knowledge of natures work adds a deeper dimension in understanding the peoples wrestle with nature. So what forces formed, reformed, and reshaped the Missouri Bootheel that the Himmelberger’s and other early settlers found when they came in the the1880’s and 1890’s.

The Lowland of Southeast Missouri are located in the northwestern part of the lower Mississippi embayment and located entirely within the Coastal Plains Province. Essentially they are a broad, flat plain sloping gently to the south bordered with northerly running remnants of uplands and terraces. The Mississippi Alluvial Plain extends from the confluence of the Ohio River in Southern Illinois with the Mississippi south to the Gulf of Mexico.

The St. Francis Lowland (Chabohollay was the English spelling of Shoboli, “the Smoky,” Choctaw name for the St. Francis River) includes Little River Valley which is located east of Crowley’s Ridge (Bluff Hills Ridge), and part of the New Madrid Seismic Zone.

The 1838 T. G. Bradford map of Arkansas referred the area that would become Morehouse Lowland as “The Great Swamp.” Except or a strip of land in Arkansas along the Mississippi River., this Lowland ended where the St. Francis River joined the Mississippi. However, the Delta did not stop here it continued down Arkansas’ eastern edge and went deep into Louisiana.

Tanners’ 1833 New Map of Arkansas with its Canals and Roads shows an unnamed river running north from Arkansas stopping before reaching as far north as New Madrid. Morris and Breese 1845 Arkansas map showed Little River not leaving the Bootheel.

Little River is a 148 mile tributary of the St. Francis River. Its location is in Southeastern Missouri and northeastern Arkansas. The Little River’s course through the Missouri Bootheel has been diverted to a man-made channel, though traces of its original course still exist. In Arkansas the river passes through the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge and joins the St. Francis River at Marked Tree.

Along with the St. Francis River, it is part of the Mississippi River watershed. Big Lake was formed December 16, 1811 about 2:30 A.M by an (estimated 8 point-zero on the Ricker Scale) earthquake centered just to the east a few miles near the Mississippi County town of Del, Arkansas. Also formed at the same time was Tyronza Lake the Sunken Lands on the St. Francis River, and the Blytheville Dome.

The floodway leaving the Big Lake area is roughly one mile wide enclosed by ten foot levees. Running through the floodway is Ditch Number 1, Ditch Number 9, Left Hand Chute of Little River Right Hand Chute of Little River, and Little River. Again Little River has lost its identity. These water-ways run together, separate only to join again. The most dominate channel is Right Hand Chute of Little River.

Near the southern end of the St. Francis Sunken land and Marked Tree Floodway Project, another Arkansas Game and Fish Commission project, the Floodway enters the St. Francis River and enters the Mississippi near Helena, Arkansas. Water that entered Little River near Cape Girardeau, Missouri, travels 231 miles to become part of the Mississippi.

In Missouri, before drainage ditches diverted them Little River was joined in the north by the Castor River, Crooked Creek, Hubble Creek and the Whitewater River These streams all became part of the Headwater Diversion Channel which stretches west to east some 40 miles from near Greenbrier in Stoddard County to the Mississippi River just south of Cape Girardeau.

Hoping to encourage development, the Missouri transferred large tracts of these lands to the counties. Counties always in need of monies to support the local government hoped their ownership would encourage more aggressive actions by local developers to buy the land especially as it would be to the county’s benefit. Not only would they be able to collect taxes for developed lands, the money from their sale would also go to the county governments.

     Lowllands Developed

The beginning of this Lowland begins some 50 million years ago with an ancient ocean reached north to near where the Ohio River now meets the Mississippi. This extended arm of the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi Embayment, covered the entire area. Oceans levels were higher due in part to less ice being locked up in the polar ice caps.

Just to the west of our study area, near Ironton, and Farmington are rock formations known as Elephant Rocks. Estimates say they were formed one and a half billion years ago when hot volcanic ash and gasses spewed in to the air. After they cooled igneous rock formed.

Taum Sauk Mountain is the highest point, at 1,772 feet, of the St. Francois Mountains in Southeast Missouri. This range of Precambrian igneous mountains borders the Ozark Plateau on the east and is one of the oldest exposures of igneous rock in North America.

Near Dexter, in Stoddard County, 25 different colors of naturally occurring sands have been found at the northern edge of the Bootheel. Speculation says the sand colors were formed when this landlocked area was seashore.

Pollen, radiocarbon-dated some 3,000 years ago, was preserved and found in 1976 in the swamp near Advance, Missouri. Principal feature make up of the pollen found in Old Field Swamp was a grass-dominated herb which suggested the lower water levels and drier climate in Southeast Missouri lasted from 8,700 to 6,500 years B.P. These relatively dry conditions continued until at least 5,000 years B.P. which fostered the growth of this pollen producing plants.

At this time Mastodons were the dominate animal in the area.  Remains were trapped in the swampy area just south of St. Louis near Imperial. Two others have been found in Northeast Arkansas. These remains are in the Arkansas State University Museum in Jonesboro. These grew to be eight feet tall or higher. These were not dinosaurs. Speculation has them crossing the Alaska’s Bering Strait and here 30,000 to 10,000 years . . the end of the Ice Age. Some may have co-existed with man, who may have arrived here 12,000 year ago.

In Bollinger County, At Marble Hill, west of Cape Girardeau a half hour drive, dinosaur remnants were trapped in a seismic fault south of town. This duck-billed Hypsibema Crassicauda probably weighed ten ton and was 10 feet and eats plants some100 million years ago. Old Field Swamp provided the first pollen evidence of vegetational changes along the southern border of the Prairie Peninsular chronologically similar to those in the northern and northeastern margins of this Lowland.

During the decline of the Wisconsin Ice Age, ending about 12,500 years ago left a radically altered topography of North America north of the Ohio River. With glacier ice melt and outburst floods, massive amounts of sediment were carried southward as the ice melted. Soil grind from rocks by the moving ice was picked up along with soils from the northern part of North America was carried southward by melt water to slowly filled the depression east of Crowley’s Ridge thus to create the basis for some of the riches farmland in the world.

In Southern Illinois signs of the southern edge of glacier debris are still observable. At Giant City State Park, near Carbondale leftover boulders are still visible. Fern Clyffe State Park near Marion, along “Goreville Hill on I-57, and the beautiful “Garden of the Gods” near Harrisburg where signs say it took the glacier a few hundred years to melt.

            Physiographic Subdivision

Southeast Lowland are made up of four physiographic subdivisions: (1) The Advance Lowland,  also known as the Western Lowland, between the bluffs of the Ozark province and the lesser slopes of northeasterly oriented Crowley’s Ridge extended from Cape Girardeau southwestward into Arkansas; (2) Crowley’s Ridge extends from Bell City into Arkansas; (3) The Morehouse Lowland are southeast of Crowley’s Ridge but merging on the north with Advance Lowland; and (4) farther to the southeast are the Mississippi Lowland. North or the Little River Lowland and east of the Sikeston Ridge are the Cairo Lowlands. At different times, maps have applied different names and given them diverse sizes.

Today, the Lowland of Southeast Missouri cover an area of approximately 4,100 square miles and includes all or part to ten counties.  The difference between the highest and lowest point in the Lowland province is about 340 feet. The Lowland elevation at the southern edge of the Ozark province is 335 feet and decreases to a low of 240 feet in southern Pemiscot County. Maximum elevation on Crowley’s Ridge is about 580 feet one mile south of Bloomfield, and that on Benton Hill Ridge is about the same.

In 1941 Flint showed that the course of the Mississippi River between St. Louis a Cape Girardeau, several times in the past, was blocked by uplifts that created the Ozarks. The continued course of the Mississippi created the Advance Lowland and latter provided a course for the St. Francis River east of Ash Hill in Butler County and Little River east of the Kennett Malden Prairie

The Kennett-Malden Prairie rises some ten to fifteen feet about the Little River Bottomlands. This Ohio River formed terrace runs north and south several miles west of Little River. This sandy ridge extends from just below Dexter to the state line near Hornersville in Dunklin County Running from five to ten miles wide the soil is a rich sandy loam which the very productive. Bernie, Malden, Clarkton and Kennett are the larger communities located here.

Headwaters for the Little River are in the St. Francis Mountains in Southeast Missouri. It flows south through New Madrid, Pemiscot and Dunklin Counties into Arkansas. This range of Precambrian igneous mountains raises over the Ozark Plateau foothills. These heat formed range is one of the oldest exposures of igneous rock in North America. In official Federal records, the range is spelled as Saint Francois Mountains, but often spelled St. Francis  Mountains after the anglicized pronunciation both the range and St. Francois County.

Precambrian is the name which describes the largest part of time in Earth’s history.  Not much is known about this period despite its makes up seven-eighths of the earth’s history.  Formation spans from the formation of the Earth some 4600 Ma (million years) ago to the beginning of the Cambrian Period when macroscopic hard-shelled animals first appeared in abundance, about 542 Ma, making up about 88% of geologic time.

Geographers concerned with eco-regions with generally similarity ecosystems place the Little River Valley areas within the St. Francis Lowland.  They define the area, west to east, as between Crowley’s Ridge and the Sikeston Ridge; running north to south from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to where Crowley’s Ridge forces the St. Francis River into the Mississippi River. At the south end of Sikeston Ridge and to its east is the Mississippi Lowland.

        Crowley's Ridge

        Crowley’s Ridge is losses formed (small partials of sand piled up by wind action) and runs 200 mile with an average height of 400 feet. This unusual formation rising above the Lowland is an aggregate that includes the subdivisions of the Bloomfield Hill and Benton Hill, extends from Commerce, Missouri to Helena, Arkansas.

Crowley's Ridge about 12 miles wide in the north and in places reached heights of 250 feet above the eastern plains. In the southern one-half of the ridge its average width is three miles worn away as water rushed southward. The consequences were from a Number of cut-fill cycles as the water came only to retreat.

During these series of cutting away the land then filling area again, the rivers (now the Mississippi and Ohio) cut two great canyons or trenches that averaged about 200 feet deep. The deepest part of these cuts, in part, is under the Sikeston Ridge; cut when the Ohio ran west of Crowley's Ridge.  Early on, they ran parallel to each other until they joined south of present day Helena, Arkansas. At another time, the junction of the two rivers was some 400 mile south of its present junction at Cairo, Illinois to meet at Natchez, Mississippi.

In 1902, Himmelberger Harrison Lumber Company at Morehouse, in an effort to increase profits to his operation drilled a dry oil well. The make-up of the areas will was revealed by the drill core. The top lay was 30 feet of clay then 110 feet of coarse sand, ten feet of gravel, 40 feet gumbo or brown clay, followed by 40 feet brown quicksand, eight feet of cement gravel, then 197 feet gumbo, one foot of rock followed by another 20 feet of gumbo, 224 feet of white sand, 40 feet of limestone, 15 feet of sand, and 35 feet of limestone.

        Wisconsin Ice Age

During the decline of the Wisconsin Ice Age, massive amounts of sediment were carried southward as the ice melted. Soil grind from rocks by the moving ice was picked up along with soils from the northern part of North America was carried southward by melt water to slowly filled the depression thus create some of the riches farmland in the world.

Over the years, the unconsolidated soils from the northern United States (31 states) and two Canadian provinces covering 1,000,000 square miles was carried south to fill the extended arm of the Gulf of Mexico. As the Morehouse and Mississippi Lowland filled, the soils became richer as vegetation incorporated with yearly deposits of flood water to form rich topsoil over 100 feet in places.

A clay based (gumbo) soil dominate the region. The landscape is relatively flat, so rain and overflow water stood for months, even years. However, as floodwater push across the floodplain and slowed down the heaver soil drop out leaving scattered deposits.

The forest included species typical of sandy areas such as river birch mixed with cypress, oaks, and hardwood bottomland species leaving a large, mainly mixed hardwood forest growing out of the swamp. As this rich vegetation was incorporated to form topsoil that became some of the riches in the world. However, herculean effort was needed to make the area useable.

The portion of Bluff Hills ecoregion found within the Mississippi Alluvial Plain is locally known as Crowley's Ridge. It is a disjointed series of loess-capped low hills with greater relief than the surrounding Lowland. At its base are Tertiary sands, gravels and materials that were not removed by the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

The Lowland west of Crowley’s Ridge, Western Lowland, between Advance and Popular Bluff handled the earlier Illinoisan ice age melt to leave the Mingo Swamp and Wildlife area. Run off from glacial deposits during the late-Wisconsin Ice Age pushed between Crowley's Ridge and the Sikeston Ridge, or at least runoff from their melting rushed between them reforming the landscape leaving a giant swamp.

        Sikeston Ridge

Sikeston Ridge is a two miles wide topographic terrace with an average height of 20 feet above the Lowland was a deposit left by the Ohio River. Its formation happened many years ago when the Mississippi River flowed west of Sikeston. This Southeast Missouri Ridge runs from about Haywood City, Scott County, just north of its namesake and runs southward to just north of the Mississippi River town of New Madrid.

        Kennett-Malden Prairie

The Kennett-Malden Prairie was also a product of the Ohio River from during its depositing stage when it filled the Eastern Lowland. An alluvial fan spread across the valley east of Crowley’s Ridge. It ranged from below and west of Kennett, Malden, and Dexter to Cairo, Wickliffe, and the Chickasaw Bluffs. When the Ohio River deserted the Cache Valley (Illinois) for its present course, it left an alluvial fan which lay undisturbed until the Mississippi River took that course.

Sometimes called the Malden Plain, the Kennett-Malden Prairie runs into Arkansas where the deposits are buried by more recent alluvium deposits of the Mississippi. These buried deposits are erosional remnant of late Pleistocene braded stream leavens as the running water slowed down. Being relative dry as they rose some six yards above the Mississippi flood plain, they attracted settlement during the prehistory period and beyond.

        Eastern Lowland

The Eastern Lowland begins near the community of Delta, including the “Bell City-Oran Gap” on the east side of Crowley’s Ridge. The layered rock outcroppings on the low hills near Chaffee and Oran appear smooth and petted. An alert viewer and see this was once a wide, shallow river bottom. The Ohio River may have even joined the Mississippi River at Morley, between Benton and Sikeston, for a time (some think this took place at Commerce).

Southwest of the current confluence of the Ohio River and Mississippi River is the Crowley’s Ridge separation of the Eastern and Western Lowland. Here, glacier runoff deposited sand and light dusty soils. Rivers eroded some of this sandy alluvium to form a newer and lower flood plain in a portion of the valleys. Thus, older and higher floodplain surfaces that have been left are terraces.

At the close of the first glacial period, uplifts in the north marked the beginning of the Mississippi River near where Cape Girardeau now stands marks the area where the Mississippi River entered the province.  Influenced by regional structures, the river turned westward. The Ohio River flowed southwestward then southward through the Cache Lowland (Illinois) along the eastern perimeter of Crowley's Ridge. During the earliest period of this phase the Mississippi eroded the Advance Lowland along with the much wider Morehouse and Charleston Lowland and underlying area of the Sikeston.

        Water Gaps in Crowley's Ridge

Four water gaps have been cut through the Crowley's Ridge in different places to connect the Advance Lowland with the Morehouse and Mississippi Lowland to the east. These are Thebes Gap, the Bell City-Oran Gap, the Castor River Gap, and the St. Francis River Gap.

The Mississippi River finally turned through the Ridge that separate its valley from that of the Ohio through what is now the Bell-Oran water gap. This cut is between the two towns became the water course later, after being abandoned by the Mississippi River, for the Whitewater-Little River (east of the Kennett-Malden Prairie), Castor or, St. Francis (east of Ash Hills), and Black Rivers. During this time, the Ohio and Mississippi rivers may have joined for a while, so some speculate

Thebus Gap, being the most recent water course through Crowley's Ridge, being cut between Benton Hills and Shawnee Hills of Illinois. At its greatest width it is barely one mile wide and seven miles wide. Ground evidence shows while the gap now drains the highland, it is a minor north flowing stream. About 11,000 years ago, this was a minor gap with partial flow of the Mississippi through it leaving the main waterway east of the ridge. By 9,500 A.D. the main channel had moved east of Sikeston Ridge. The old Mississippi River channel between Crowley's Ridge and Sikeston Ridge is now Little River.

Southwest of Ardeola, the Caster River Gap served that river before canals drained that river. This gap was about ten miles long and varied in width from on-mile on the southeast and widened to one mile in the northwest.

The St. Francis River Gap is southwest of Campbell where it forms the northwestern border between the Missouri Bootheel and Arkansas. Crowley's Ridge is low and narrow at the location of this cut being widest to the northwest.

The relationship between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers has never been a stable or satisfactory one. Where they meet some eight miles below Cape Girardeau the Ohio is the larger stream, yet its floodplain was several feet lower than the street whose name it takes. With this mating, the Mississippi had to abandon the eastern end of the Advanced Lowland and the whole of the Morehouse Lowland to enter the Ohio Valley at Commerce through the Bell-City Gap. This change happened in recent times; so recently the river has yet had time to fully adapt the small valley to it size.

Little River’s Geographic Past First Settlers

Lowland Develop

Physiographic Subdivision

Crowley's Ridge 

Wisconsin Ice Age

Sikeston Ridge

Kennett-Malden Prairie

Eastern Lowlands

Water Gaps in Crowley's Ridge 



05/28/2015 3:50am

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The St. Francis Lowland (Chabohollay was the English spelling of Shoboli, “the Smoky,” Choctaw name for the St. Francis River) includes Little River Valley which is located east of Crowley’s Ridge (Bluff Hills Ridge), and part of the New Madrid Seismic Zone.

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05/09/2017 7:39pm

I didn't know that little river's history was this long and have undergone many changes. Thank you for posting this very informative history. I am sure many people are not familiar with this story. It's very rich and I am just so happy to know all of these facts. Though the article is too long, and I spent almost an hour reading it, every information is worth knowing!

08/16/2017 1:58am

This post is so facinating, I really like the way you choose words for your writing. I am a fan of geography and I always up for reading something about interesting places of America. Thanks a lot for posting.


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    Having grown up on Little River, I have been fascinated with it. Over the past several years, as a local historian, this area has been a special interest. 

     These areas have been treated much like step-children by Jefferson City and Little Rock. They seem to believe nothing has ever happened here.  Our history has been long and varied. Hope you enjoy my trip.  

    Near Puxico is the swampy Mingo Wildlife Refuge. One hundred and fifty year ago, most of the Little River Valley appeared that way. This valley covering two million acres was part of the largest wetland in America.

    Floods frequently intimated the Valley. Between 1815 and 2011, 15 major floods covered or threatened the area.

    Timber companies came in at the end of the 19th Century to clean cut the forest. Louis Houck, a Cape Girardeau lawyer and railroad builder, envisioned a rail network that covered the wetlands.

    Little River Drainage District (LRDD) Corporation was established in 1907 by an act of the Butler County (MO) Circuit Court. 

    Between 1909 and 1928 the LRDD dug nearly 1000 miles of ditches and constructed 30 miles of levees to drain 1.2 million acres of swamp and overflow land in Southeast Missouri. More dirt was moved than in building the Panama Canal.

    One surprise I had was the number of settlements in the area before 1811-1812. Another was the water connection between the Mississippi River and the St. Francis and I had no idea that Little River had enough current to run a grist mill.

    Norman Vickers


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    Little River's Geographic Past